The deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to help fight the COVID-19 novel coronavirus yet again demonstrates the need for a properly funded defence force.
The SANDF is the nation’s insurance policy. Unfortunately the public cannot expect adequate service if premiums have not been paid.
Last week President Cyril Ramaphosa authorised the deployment of 2 820 SANDF members to assist the police and other entities enforce the 21-day lockdown that began on 26 March and subsequently the SANDF authorised the callup of Reserve Force members to assist.
The deployment puts further strain on the already creaking SANDF and will cost at least tens of millions of Rands. For example, when some 1 300 soldiers were deployed to the Western Cape in 2019 to combat gang violence and other crimes, it cost around R20 million a month. Simple extrapolation would indicate the current deployment will cost around R40 million a month for nearly 3 000 soldiers. Millions of Rands have also been spent by the Department of Defence on repatriating and quarantining South Africans from China.
The increase in commitments comes at a time when South Africa’s defence budget stands at less than 1% of Gross Domestic Product (.93% at present), well below the international average of 2%. The 2017/18 defence budget was R48.6 billion. In 2018/19 it was R47.9 billion and the 2019/20 defence budget amounts to R50.5 billion, which represents a real-term decline of 7%. The Department of Defence indicated it needs R80 billion to meet its requirements.
The situation is not expected to get any better as the Department of Defence has been requested to cut R22.9 billion over the next five years and the Special Defence Account (SDA) faces imminent closure, cutting off a large source of funding to the Department of Defence.
Funding constraints have caused capabilities to be lost and the acquisition of new military equipment to stagnate.
The COVID-19 coronavirus exploded across the world in three months, giving little time to prepare – a military needs to prepare for war during times of peace.
Whilst the general public often have little interest in the defence force, with a focus on social welfare, it is crises like the coronavirus that highlight the need for a well-equipped and adequately funded military – not just when disaster strikes, but well before.
Now that the SANDF is on the front lines of the war against the coronavirus, it is time to recognise the important non-combat work of the SANDF, from disaster relief to border protection, and give it the funding it needs to adequately carry out its tasks. Increasing defence spending to the internationally accepted 2% of GDP would be a good start, ensuring that when the next disaster strikes, the SANDF is ready and prepared to serve the people of South Africa.